THE COMPATIBILITY OF BUDDHISM AND UNITARIANISM
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THE COMPATIBILITY OF BUDDHISM AND UNITARIANISM

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Copyright Ian Ellis-Jones 2012 - All Rights Reserved.

Copyright Ian Ellis-Jones 2012 - All Rights Reserved.

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  • 1. THE COMPATIBILITY OF BUDDHISM AND UNITARIANISM by The Rev. Dr Ian Ellis-Jones Senior Minister, Sydney Unitarian Church, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia Senior Pastor, Unitarian Ministries, Columbia, South Carolina, United States of AmericaThere are several belief systems that are ordinarily regarded as being religiouswhich, when compared and contrasted with a religion such as what is known asconventional Christianity, are wholly or substantially naturalistic (non-supernaturalistic). They include Buddhism (in particular, Theravāda Buddhism),Confucianism, religious naturalism, religious humanism, much of modern dayJudaism, much of modern day Unitarianism and Unitarian Universalism, and NewThought.As regards Buddhism and Confucianism, Humanist philosopher Corliss Lamonthas written in The Philosophy of Humanism that “it seems most unlikely thateither [Buddha or Confucius] believed in supernaturalism in the sense of apersonal God and personal immortality”.There are two main types or manifestations of Buddhism - Theravāda Buddhismand Mahāyāna Buddhism. As regards the former, which is the oldest form ofBuddhism, the one "closest" to the Buddhas own teachings, and the dominantform of Buddhism in southeast Asia, there is, as R L Slater points out, “not only acomplete absence of any belief in God, or any approach to such a belief, but a
  • 2. 2complete absence of any experience or religious consciousness of transcendentBeing”. More particularly, as David Bentley-Taylor points out, the belief system“looks back to the body of doctrine approved at an important conference held inIndia not long after the founder’s death”. That body of doctrine comprises a set ofimportant ethical teachings and standards.American theologian, humanist and Unitarian minister Charles Francis Potter, inhis book The Faiths Men Live By, has written, “This is the core of [Buddha’s]message - right thinking will bring peace of mind.” In other words, Buddhism,insofar as the individual human being is concerned, is essentially a path ofpersonal transformation: "Buddhism teaches us to look within ourselves for the inner peace and happiness we seek. By developing a more positive outlook, and in particular by deepening our wisdom and compassion, we can improve the quality of our life and grain great power to help others."Buddhism, in its pure, naturalistic form, is essentially an education ... indeed, aprocess of education about ourselves and our environment, consisting of variousmethods and practices of self-culture (cf the American Transcendentalists). Theteachings of the Buddha, when practiced, teach us to recognize ourselves - ourthoughts, speech, actions ... and their various consequences. When we let go ofour attractions, aversions and delusions, we are restored to our original andcomplete wisdom ... "the pure mind of our self-nature" (Ven Master Chin Kung).On a more formal side Unitarian minister Potter has written: "There is no record of the Buddha’s ever praying or ever teaching his disciples to pray. The nearest to a prayer there is in Buddhism is the statement which must be made by a convert, which is called The Refuge, or The Buddhist Trinity [the Tisarana, also commonly rendered "The Three Refuges"]: I take refuge in the Buddha. I take refuge in the Dharma. I take refuge in the Sangha.
  • 3. 3 The Dharma is the Teaching or Doctrine of Buddhism, and the Sangha is the brotherhood of the Believers."It must, however, be kept in mind that the formulation, “I take refuge in theBuddha”, refers to an undertaking to follow Buddha’s instructions, that is, to walkin his steps [cf 1 Peter 2:21: "... Christ also suffered for you, leaving you anexample, so that you should follow in his steps"]. The words do not, however,denote accepting Buddha as one’s personal lord and savior, at least asunderstood in evangelical Christianity. There is, as R L Slater points out, acomplete “absence of any belief in divine grace, as man is bidden to work out hisown salvation, dependent on his own effort”.And what of the so-called supernatural? As regards traditional Buddhism,Humanist philosopher Paul Kurtz, in his book Living Without Religion:Eupraxophy, has written: "One cannot find a doctrine of the supernatural in Buddhism, at least as understood in Western religion. There is no conception of God as a person, no cosmic plan, no idea of personal immortality or salvation. In the traditional sense Buddha was an atheist, for he rejected theism. …"Buddhism, at least as taught by its founder (who, by the way, did not claim to bedivine and was quite agnostic as to the existence of God as traditionallyunderstood), was and remains a non-theistic ethical system, notwithstanding thesupposed existence of godlike beings in Mahāyāna Buddhism, of which there aremany schools). Be that as it may, Buddhism is almost entirely devoid of faith andworship at least in the sense in which those words ordinarily are used. Its FourNoble Truths, Noble Eightfold Path and Ten Commandments (the latter so verydifferent from those of Judaism and Christianity), along with the lists of the FourIntoxications and the Five Hindrances, constitute an entirely naturalistic code ofethical standards devoid of any references to God. Further, Buddhism lacks themythology of a supernatural, miraculous religion and the doctrine of salvation bygrace. Instead, Buddhism focuses on achieving moral equanimity in this life. For
  • 4. 4the most part, Buddhism, at least in its oldest and most authentic forms andmanifestations, is naturalistic and psychological in its orientation, teachings andoutlook. Says Rodney King: "Legendary miracles did develop later within Buddhism which ascribe miracles to Buddha, yet the original accounts are completely devoid of any miraculous occurrences. Miracles are incompatible with Buddhas philosophy. Buddhism affirms a naturalistic view of the universe. This may also explain the sky-rocketing interest in Buddhism ... it offers a type of spirituality without the religious baggage of faith, accountability and absolute truths."Altogether different is Caodaoism, which is the third largest religion in Vietnamafter Buddhism and Roman Catholicism. Caodaoism is a curious, idiosyncratic,highly syncretistic superstitious religion, or caricature of a religion, thatuncomfortably combines elements of, among others, Buddhism, RomanCatholicism, Daoism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam and Vietnameseindigenous belief systems (even throwing in Charlie Chaplin and Victor Hugo forgood measure), and is nothing short of a travesty of traditional Buddhism as wellas the other abovementioned belief systems. It has attracted the interest of someWesterners and has spread from Vietnam to many other countries includingAustralia. Its a pretty religion, but its not Buddhism.There is no concept in true Buddhism of “creation”, let alone doctrine of specialcreation (as in Christianity), or, for that matter, any sense of there being a“Creator”, whether personal or otherwise. Similar to certain belief systems suchas Christian Science and New Thought, the religion embodies a rather extremeform of what is known as objective idealism. In that regard, Hsu Heng Wei, inWhat is Buddhism? Theory and Practice, writes: "A well-known Buddhist saying Fundamentally uncreated is the mind but it exists through things may be considered to be in line with Materialism."The Buddhist doctrines of karma and rebirth do not postulate the existence of asupernatural order or level of reality as those words are understood in Western
  • 5. 5religion and philosophy but are understood, rightly or wrongly, to be perfectlynaturalistic in their operation. Bentley-Taylor makes the point that these doctrinesare said to operate in naturalistic spheres of human activity and mentality: "… Buddhism does not accept the theory of transmigration, for it rejects the idea of a soul existing in a body and thus forming the connecting link between successive incarnations. What lives on after death is simply Karma, the result of what has happened before, not some inward and invisible part of the individual. The true Buddhist doctrine is therefore rebirth without transmigration."This is something that is rarely properly understood. Many people think thatBuddhist and Hindu views on reincarnation are more-or-less the same, but that isnot the case. There is no transmigration of souls according to Buddhism; theexpress denial of the existence of the soul is one of the principal claims ofBuddhism. Nirvana is itself a natural state - one of liberation - the attainment ofwhich is itself viewed as a natural evolutionary process. Bentley-Taylor writes: "Nirvana is an ethical state, a condition which eliminates any future rebirth, the extinction of all craving, the final release from suffering. … It is a state of mind in which Karma comes to an end. It is the cessation of becoming, for when a process is not continued it simply ceases. It is remainderlessness. …"Although accepted and generally regarded as a religion, Buddhism is more amoral philosophy and "a Way". Thus, the great British judge Lord Denning MRrecognized that Buddhism was an “exceptional case” that needed to be treatedas such as it did not otherwise come within the standard definition of religion" (Rv Registrar General, ex parte Segerdal [1970] 3 All ER 886 at 890). However,with the greatest respect, to treat what is reportedly the sixth largest of theworld’s religions in terms of followers as an “exception” to the general rule strainscredulity and is otherwise unacceptable as it smacks of unfortunate overtones ofChristian and western cultural supremacy and religious bias.For my part, as a Unitarian Christian who has also formally embraced Buddhismas a way of life and rule for living, having taken the Three Refuges (see the
  • 6. 6Tisarana, above) as well as the Five Precepts, I firmly believe that there is noincompatibility between Buddhism and true Christianity, the latter rightly beingstripped of the many crude theological dogmas which, in my respectful opinion,were never part of the authentic teachings or mission of Jesus. Buddhism, aswith progressive Christianity, is not a question of creed but of life. Buddhism isnot a belief system or a ritual. As already mentioned, Buddhism is essentially aneducation. As such, followers of all religions, or none, can learn and cultivate thiseducation of true wisdom.Becoming a Buddhist is making a commitment to practice Buddhism by takingthe Three refuges. Being a Buddhist is not a matter of accepting a particularbelief system or certain doctrines or dogmas but of practising Buddhism on adaily basis from moment to moment. The teachings of the Buddha are somethingto do, not something to believe in. As a Buddhist Christian I am not asked toaccept any article of faith but to try to live according to certain moral and ethicalprecepts which collectively comprise what some have referred to as the "parallelsayings" of both the Buddha and Jesus. Those precepts include conqueringanger by non-anger, evil by good, and lying by truthfulness. In the words of theVenerable Bhikkhu Buddhadāsa Indapañño, "Christianity and Buddhism havemore things in common than you ever knew, thought, or hoped." -oo0oo-